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On the table: later start for schools

No earlier than 14 days before Labor Day. The restrictions would not go into effect until the 2007-2008 school year.

Published May 4, 2006


TALLAHASSEE--Summer vacation is anything but child's play in the state capital.Under a bill that passed the Florida Legislature on Thursday, public schools could start no earlier than 14 days before Labor Day.

But don't make those vacation plans just yet. The school calendar could change yet again in today's final flurry of legislative action, or before the restrictions take effect in the 2007-2008 school year.

"I've had literally hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of letters," said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, chair of the Senate Education Committee.

And they aren't all from parents. "From the standpoint of economic development for the state, we've had major concerns from the tourism industry that they never know when they have students around for their theme parks," Lynn said.

The outcry prompted the Senate to make later school start dates part of a larger bill that reforms the curriculum for middle and high school. On Thursday, the Legislature passed the package, which is a priority of Gov. Jeb Bush.

Bush has no problem with later school start dates. In Tampa Bay, the first day of school has crept into early August.

Some people blame it on pressure to prepare for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, the exam at the center of his school grading system.

Bush noted there are "three things the FCAT has been accused of causing: Early school start dates, acne and the common cold ... This eliminates one of those."

But some lawmakers in the Florida House held their noses while voting for the "14-days" provision to keep from jeopardizing the education package. Some hope they can water it down in a different bill today, or make changes before it goes into effect in a year.

"Who do we think we are?" said Rep. Dick Kravitz, R-Jacksonville. "It's none of our business when a school district starts. That's the business of the local, elected school board."

Local school districts couldn't agree more. "The calendar is the School Board's sole responsibility," said Hillsborough

County School Board member Jennifer Faliero, who has two school-age daughters.

Hillsborough moved its start date earlier several years ago at the request of high school seniors who wanted to complete their first semester exams before the long Christmas break.

If the calendars are pushed to later in August, "Semester exams are going to have to be reconsidered," Faliero said. "We might have to put them after the Christmas holiday. Parents don't realize what this means."
But some parents, including Diane Isenhart-Roy of New Port Richey, said a later start time would be "the best news ever."

She has one child at Seven Springs Middle School and two at Mitchell High School. She detests sending her children back to school in early August, saying it eats into family vacation time and the overall feel of summer.

"The most wonderful time is summertime, being home with kids," she said. "I think shifting it to go back later gives us more time as a family."

Maybe so, but Pinellas School Board member Carol Cook noted that an earlier start date means a later end date. High school seniors who graduate in June rather than mid-May might be prevented from enrolling in summer courses at colleges and universities, Cook said.

"I don't know that our community is all that upset about starting earlier," Cook said.
Nevertheless, a statewide poll conducted by the St. Petersburg Times in March indicated a large majority of Florida residents  -- 68 percent -- were in favor of a late August to early September start date.Those sentiments made sense to Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, one of sponsors of the later date."This bill restores sanity to the calendar year," said Gelber, who has three young children. "This is more in line with the rest of the nation."

Senate President Tom Lee, R-Valrico, couldn't explain why the issue has the Legislature bedeviled. "For the life of me, I do not understand why we can't get our act together on a reasonable date to start school in Florida," he said. "How hard is that?"

[Last modified May 4, 2006, 22:19:05]

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